Emerging Technology from the arXiv

A View from Emerging Technology from the arXiv

Dreams of a Lunar Observatory

If you could build an observatory on the Moon, what would you look for?

  • September 15, 2009

Imagine you could build an observatory on the Moon. What would you look for?

That was essentially the brief given to the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research, or LUNAR consortium, when NASA asked it to speculate about the unique astrophysics that could be done on the Moon.

The far side of the Moon has a one characteristic that makes it particularly attractive to astronomers: it is shielded from the radio broadcasts that makes astronomical observations at these frequencies all but impossible on Earth. As a result, the LUNAR consortium says it should be possible to make two kinds of radio observations that are not possible from Earth.

First is to map the distribution of neutral hydrogen in the universe in the era after the creation of the cosmic microwave background radiation and before the Universe was lit by the first stars, a period called the Dark Ages. That’s the period between about 100 and 500 million years after the Big Bang.

The red-shifted radiation emitted by hydrogen at this time is now in the radio region of the spectrum but cannot be well measured on Earth because of noise. So a decent radio telescope on the Moon would provide a unique window into this aspect of the Universe’s history.

Another idea is to study the way particles are accelerated in the heliosphere by listening for the radio emissions they produce. Again that can only be done in the radio-quiet environment that the far side of the Moon provides.

Finally, the LUNAR consortium suggest measuring the distance to the Moon and the way it changes more accurately using laser ranging techniques. That might reveal any strange gravitational anomalies and test the equivalence principle. Sadly the reflectors placed on the Moon by Apollo astronauts are not good enough for these purposes, so new reflectors need to be sent aloft.

One thing the LUNAR consortium doesn’t stretch to is an a analysis of the cost of such projects, which may have a bearing on whether they ever get built.

But judging from the parlous state of NASA’s finances, there’s little chance of these ideas getting off the ground in the forseeable future, however cheap they be.

Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/0909.1509: Science from the Moon: The NASA/NLSI Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR)

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

You've read of free articles this month.